A remote settlement even for Peru, PUERTO MALDONADO is a frontier colonist town with strong links to the Cusco region and a fervour for bubbly jungle chicha music. With an economy based on unsustainable lumber and gold extraction, and highly sustainable brazil-nut gathering from the rivers and forests of Madre de Dios, Puerto Maldonado has grown enormously over the last twenty years from a small, laidback outpost of civilization to a busy market town. Today, swollen by the arrival of businesses expecting a boom now that the road to Brazil is open, it’s the thriving, safe (and fairly expensive) capital of a region that feels very much on the threshold of major upheavals. Where, only thirty years ago, there were hardly any four-wheeled vehicles and the town’s only TV was set up outside the municipal building for the locals to watch football, these days enormous Brazilian trucks thunder past and satellite TV dishes have sprouted all over town.
While the busy city centre combines the usual bars and restaurants with pool halls, hammock shops and offices, there isn’t much in the way of specific attractions, and most visitors come here primarily to enter the forest and stay in a lodge.
While gold mining and logging – both mostly illegal frontier businesses – keep Puerto Maldonado buzzing today, it was rubber that established the town at the beginning of the twentieth century. During the 1920s, game hunters dominated the economy of the region, and after them, mainly in the 1960s, the exploiters of mahogany and cedar trees arrived – leading to the construction of Boca Manu airstrip, just before the oil companies moved in during the 1970s. Most of the townspeople, riding coolly around on Honda motorbikes, are second-generation colonos, but there’s a constant stream of new and hopeful arrivals, both rich and poor, from all parts of South America. The lure, inevitably, is gold.